I’ve written in the past regarding the unique public-relations issues faced by charities involved in trust/probate litigation (see here) and the different expectations the public and media have with respect to such litigants (see here). The same dynamics are currently playing themselves out in a case involving a $260 million gift to eight charities.
As reported by the New York Times in Salvation Army Unit Seeks to Gain More of a Huge Gift, the charities find themselves balancing a legitimate desire to maximize the funds going to their respective charities — all of which do good works and could use the money — against appearing less than saintly in public. Here are a few excerpts from the linked-to story:
The Salvation Army has gone to court in Seattle to challenge a trust dividing more than $260 million among eight charities, including Greenpeace.
The Salvation Army argues that the specific Greenpeace organization to which the donor, H. Guy Di Stefano, assigned the money was dissolved in 2005 and that its affiliate is not eligible to receive the gift. It wants the court to divide the money among the seven other charities.
“I’m mystified why anyone, let alone the Salvation Army, would oppose Greenpeace receiving this generous donation,” said John Passacantando, the group’s executive director. “It’s obvious that the donor’s intent was for Greenpeace to benefit from this.”
The dispute involves a trust created by Mr. Di Stefano, whose late wife, Doris, inherited United Parcel Service stock from her father, a former U.P.S. executive, and never sold it.
Mr. Di Stefano died in July and left his estate to eight charities: Direct Relief International, the Salvation Army, the Santa Barbara Hospice Foundation, the Santa Barbara Visiting Nurse Association, the American Humane Society, the Disabled American Veterans Charitable Service Trust, Greenpeace International Inc. and the World Wildlife Fund. Each stands to receive roughly $33 million.
Greenpeace International is defunct, however, and a charity called the Greenpeace Fund, with which it shared offices, phones and some employees, is claiming its share.
In October, Bank of America, the trustee, filed a petition in court in Washington State, where Mr. Di Stefano lived at the time of his death, asking what it should do. Shirley Norton, a bank spokeswoman, said it was only seeking to clarify its duties, not to deprive Greenpeace of money.
“Because of the disparity in the names and the fact that Greenpeace International no longer exists, we need guidance from the court,” Ms. Norton said.
The bank’s petition prompted the Salvation Army to contest disbursement of the money to the Greenpeace Fund.
. . . . .
The other beneficiaries of the trust have avoided the dispute.
“In my 10 years as a legal counsel here, we have never gotten involved in a dispute over donor intent, and we certainly have had the opportunity,” said Christopher J. Clay, general counsel and planned giving director at the disabled veterans group.
“For a national charity to get out there in this kind of a case would take a compelling reason,” Mr. Clay said, “and I don’t think there’s a compelling reason here.”
The tone of the article clearly telegraphs the writer’s disapproval of the Salvation Army’s actions and the lengths the other charities are going to distance themselves from the Salvation Army. Not surprisingly the blogosphere has been less than "charitable" to the Salvation Army on this case (see here). The Salvation Army thought it was resolving a legal dispute when in fact it was stepping into a big PR mess. I don’t fault them for seeking to maximize their share of the $260 million charitable gift, but I do fault them for being clumsy about it.